The Art of Storytelling: Editing for Narrative Arc

Narrative Arc

When it all comes down to it, writers are artists, and storytelling is an artform. Writers use storytelling like a sculptor uses marble—they carve and shape a narrative arc into the story’s structure.

The narrative arc provides texture to the story’s plot, adding mountains and valleys among the sequence of events. If the plot only comprises a straight line from one event to another, the story is, literally, flat and uncompelling. However, when you add conflict, rising action, a climax, and a resolution, you have a plot with compelling texture that will leave readers on the edge of their seats.

Alongside the narrative arc is pacing, or the length between each plot element. Think of this as the distance between the mountains and the plateaus. A story requires fast pacing during certain plot elements, such as an action scene; and slower pacing, such as scenes about character development or bonding. A good story requires balance between the fast-paced scenes and the slower-paced scenes; otherwise, readers may become disengaged in the story.

Editors can pinpoint when a scene is rushing or dragging, based on the purpose of the scene and what the pacing requires. The key elements in a narrative arc each require a certain speed of pacing but can easily become too fast or too slow. Your editor will happily let you know which scenes need to pick up the pace or need to slow down and linger on a particular action, image, or emotion.

RELATED READ: Ideas for Developing a Story

Here are the key elements in a narrative arc:


Exposition is information such as the backstory of a character or setting, or a descriptive explanation of the worldbuilding. Most of this information is crucial for the reader to know, and you might be tempted to start the novel with exposition right away. However, exposition is often accompanied by long blocks of text, and if you’re not careful, this may cause the pacing to move the story along far too slowly. It is best to sprinkle the exposition throughout the first half of the novel instead of burying the reader with it by placing it all at the beginning.

Rising Action

At this point, the conflict has been established and the writer is setting up the building blocks of the story. The protagonist is now struggling to overcome the conflict. The rising action takes up the majority of the plot. During this time, we see the character start changing from who they were at the beginning of the story. We see them develop friendships, enemies, romantic interests, and, perhaps, we even see them fail. The pacing usually varies from scene to scene. For example, a scene where the protagonist faces an obstacle might be a fast-paced scene. A slower scene may follow, in which two characters share their backstories. However, a quick succession of scene after scene may feel too rushed while one slow-paced scene after another may leave the reader feeling like they need to drag themselves through the novel. Remember, balance is key.


The climax is highest peak in the narrative arc and the highest point of tension. This is the point in the story where the protagonist must confront the antagonist—usually another character or an intangible concept, such as the protagonist’s fear—in order to reach their goal. Pacing is a great tool used to create tension at this point in the story. When used purposefully, fast pacing and slow pacing are both effective. Readers hearts will drop at short—even one-word—sentences, a sentence per line, or a single word per line. On the other hand, slowing the pacing down to linger on an action or an image can also thrill readers. Have you ever heard that time slows down during an adrenaline rush? Slower pacing can convey the feeling of the protagonist seeing in slow motion. And because the reader experiences the story through the protagonist’s eyes, the reader will feel this as well.

Falling Action

The falling action is the transition between the climax and the resolution. While up to this point, the narrative arc has been rising higher and higher, now is the point where it begins to descend. The story’s action has calmed and now we are left with the consequences immediately following the climax. Pacing here can play several roles. Perhaps the falling action consists of multiple brief scenes in which the protagonist ties up loose ends. Or perhaps the pacing is slower, in which one or more characters explain the events of the climax. Or perhaps there is a combination in which the paragraphs are broken by dialogue for the purpose of character development. The ideal pacing of the falling action varies from story to story, and editors can be on the lookout for whether or not the pacing is used effectively in yours.

RELATED READ: What Is Narrative Writing? Tips and Examples


This is how the story ends. By this time, all loose ends are tied. The protagonist has completed their character arc and is noticeably different from who they were at the beginning. The ending doesn’t need to be happy, but it usually feels complete. During this stage, the pacing is usually slower but the scenes are also more brief. However, a faster-paced, action-oriented resolution might indicate a sequel.

The narrative arc and pacing work together to create a cohesive story experience. If a scene is dragging because of exposition and description, the reader might become disengaged. On the other hand, if we finally reach the climax and the conflict is resolved in a single page, readers will be disappointed by the rushed ending. When it comes to narrative arcs and pacing, balance is key.

Editorial Tips:

  1. Read a scene aloud. If you’re stumbling over wordy phrases, or are out of breath before the end of a verbose sentence, the pacing may be too slow.’
  2. Look at the white space in your Word document. If there is a lot of white space and a small amount of text, consider adding character and setting descriptions and a character’s internal monologue.
  3. On the other hand, if you have large blocks of text that go on for multiple pages, try breaking it up with a dialogue or action beats.
  4. Scroll through your document and watch the scroll bar on the right-hand side. You should be about 20% of the way through the document when your protagonist sets off on their (physical or emotional) journey. Any more than this means the pacing is too slow.

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